Preserving the Scelsi Improvisations


Information regarding the Scelsi Resonators can be obtained at the following email address:

by Frances-Marie Uitti
October 1995

Giacinto Scelsi was a master improviser. He created hundreds of hours of music, which he originally recorded on tape and then had transcribed for various instruments. These transcriptions were made in collaboration with various musicians: the majority by Vieri Tosatti, but also Alvin Curran, Sergio Caffaro and myself.

I met Scelsi in Rome in 1974, at a concert featuring music of the Second Viennese School in which I played Webern's op.11 Pieces For cello and piano. During the dress rehearsal I glanced up from my score to find a short, dignified man of quite some age shuffling towards me under a mountainous fur coat. An embroidered, mirror-encrusted cap was perched upon a barely visible head, out of which peered two intensely vibrant eyes. A hallucination? He stopped several inches from my music stand and queried: "Do you play well?". Astonished, the only response I could manage was "Maestro, you will have one minute and 30 seconds to decide for yourself".

Following' the concert he invited me to his house in Via San Teodoro 8: one of the most beautiful streets in Rome, overlooking the Palatine Hill. He played for me a recorded performance of his violin concerto Anahit. I was astounded by the sheer power and radical musical conception -- for here was a very large work completely revolving around a single pitch! The intensity and drama were like nothing I had ever experienced before. Scelsi then showed me the scores of three works for solo cello, of extreme difficulty, and asked me to premiere them. Thus was initiated a close musical collaboration and friendship which lasted until his death, 14 years later.

Over the years, rehearsing with him, we edited those scores and made corrections. Although we discussed performance details, he was much more concerned with musical gestures and a special sound-world; an extremely sensitive, vibrant resonance that transcended the usual "material" sensuality typically associated with the cello. He envisioned sound that lost its opacity and became transparent, scintillating. It was during these sessions that he first played one of his taped improvisations made on the ondiola. This is a small electronic instrument with a three-octave keyboard. Additional dials and keys were available for producing glissandi, quarter-tones, vibrato and predetermined timbres. There were pedals to control additional octave transpositions as well as dynamics. Most of Scelsi's chamber music and orchestral pieces were created using this instrument.

Since the 1940s, Giacinto Scelsi had been deeply involved with Eastern religions. He practised yoga as well as other religious disciplines and studied the works of, for example, Blavatsky and Gurdjieff, but he was particularly influenced by the teachings of Sri Aurobindo and La Mere. He believed that various meditation techniques, such as intoning the "OM", enabled him to enter into a different vibratory realm. For him, sound in its purest vibration was a potent force that has an extremely powerful influence on people. He was convinced that, through meditation and improvisation, he could become a channel for higher forces which would enable the creation of works that were otherwise impossible through ordinary composition.

Over the years I spent countless afternoons and evenings in his house, listening to tapes of improvisations and performances of his works. Scelsi loved to discuss art, music and religion and could tirelessly expound on those subjects. He often claimed that he wasn't a composer ("one who puts things together") but rather one who received music. And in order to preserve that music, he recorded everything he played. He considered the subsequent task of transcribing these tapes to be for the artisan, and not for the artist, in much the same way that an architect will enlist the services of draughtsmen to draw up his designs. Even so, Scelsi worked closely with the musicians who transcribed and orchestrated his scores. Thus he saved his creative energy for those spiritual Devas whom he believed assisted his musical output.

Late in life Giacinto Scelsi had a premonition that "when the eights lined up" he would leave this earth, and in fact on 8 August 1988 he drifted into a coma. On the ninth of August he died. In place of his physical presence, he left a treasuretrove of musical materials, artworks, writings, and an enormous closet stuffed full with tapes dating all the way back to the early 1950s.

The Isabella Scelsi Foundation, named after his sister, was founded to oversee the preservation of his work. Scelsi's entire musical oeuvre was published by Salabert and the writings by Parole Gelati. There was a growing concern for the conservation of the more than seven hundred tapes that had been stored in that notoriously overheated apartment for many decades. No-one could guess in what condition they would be found. It was decided that, if possible, the original improvisations should be copied onto digital format for preservation. But where should that take place?. If they were removed from the premises, one risked loss or inadvertent damage during transport. Yet to permit this long work to be done in the Foundation at via San Teodoro 8 meant that one of the members would have to be ever present. There was also the fear that a technician unfamiliar with Scelsi's work would not be able to distinguish his original works from other recorded pieces that Scelsi had collected. Because of my extensive knowledge of Scelsi's music the Foundation contacted me to oversee the conservation of these tapes. This was enormous responsibility and would demand a great deal of time. Because of my heavy concert schedule, the Foundation agreed that the work could be done intermittently between tours. Indeed, it cost 18 months to complete the project. Along with a highly respected restorer of old tapes, Barry van der Sluis, I flew to Rome. We carefully examined hundreds of tapes that had been pre-catalogued by the foundation. To our mutual amazement, the majority of tapes were found to be in excellent condition. I discovered over three hundred tapes containing original material.

We rented a Studer recorder which had a delicate start-stop mechanism that minimizes possible damage to the tapes. We decided to make two DAT copies for each original tape, keeping one in the bank and one in the Foundation. Next, we devised a cataloguing system to identify each tape and give pertinent information about each work. Listed were the conditions of the tapes, the quality of the original recording, speed and track indications, beginnings and endings of each work, the instrument played, suitability for future CDs, and a commentary that described the musical grammar of the works.

The great majority of the works averaged between three to five minutes in length and were played on the piano, ondiola, guitar, and various percussion instruments. These short pieces were often grouped into suites or movements of larger forms.

The piano pieces were often highly virtuosic, incorporating trills, arpeggiated figures, clusters, and scalar fragments -- all at high speed -- often with extreme dynamics as principal material. Frequently Scelsi would begin with short figures that would develop into majestic structures. The early piano works used a free chromatic palette, and what he described as a "romantic" expressivity which was underlined through the warmth of the middle register in slow movements. He experimented with serialistic ideas in a few of the studies and used clusters as the basis for others. The intensely dramatic nature of much of the piano music is contrasted by a more me'ditative simplicity found in some of the later works. Chiming chords in the upper register reveal a stark beauty that replace the lush tones of earlier works. In one of the last piano pieces he experimented further, using a microphone to distort and prolong the tones of the instrument.

The ondiola, however, was a tool for far more radical musical thought. One finds a remarkable variety of techniques. Here Scelsi explored the limits of extreme velocity, dynamics, range, and duration. Many improvisations were centred on sudden variations in the dynamic texture, giving a sense of great power and vitality. There were also a number of monodic works, some highly ornamented around a basic melodic line. Others used extreme speeds of oscillating repeated figures, and still others incorporated dramatically pulsating dynamics in the low register. He used glissandi of various speeds as well as quartertones. Two and three equally important voices were simultaneously explored, at times using microtones and at other times glissandi in slow durations.

The ondiola works generally exhibit a unique sense of assymetry. Melodies that seem destined to create a tone centre suddenly break free to move into foreign registers with new harmonic implications, at times in wildly spaced intervals and at extreme speeds. The later works were often centred around an extended single tone with multiple voicings, in octaves. This single tone was compositionally developed by vibrati of various speeds, pulsations, glissandi and microtones. Comparatively speaking the later works have a longer duration, and often explore a richer timbre. Several of these last pieces were combined with prerecorded ondiola tapes played back normally or even backwards, producing a very rough timbral texture filled with overtones and subtle accents. Only the ondiola improvisations were transcribed for other instruments. I think it is important to acknowledge Vieri Tosatti's masterful and remarkably innovative realizations of the large ondiola scores. The guitar works are particularly impressive. Tapping, stroking, and strumming into a microphone transformed this too familiar instrument into a veritable percussion section.

Formal unity marks the accomplishment of Scelsi's improvisations. One never has the feeling that Scelsi is searching for an idea, or that he hesitates. All of these works reveal a man who could summon his forces with great intensity to spontaneously create powerful music in its most coherent and final form.

Giacinto Scelsi spoke into the microphone with the same ease and clarity of mind as he did with his music. He left several treatises on harmony and rhythm as well as occult discourses on the nature of religion, art, and a fantasy based on the afterlife. In addition, he dictated an autobiography that is filled with entertaining stories and also about some of the most interesting personalities of his time.

In these few words, I have attempted to describe the prolific activity of an important artist whose work spans over 40 years. It is only a glimpse of the richness found. I was fortunate to be able to immerse myself in the real-time creations of this most compelling musician and to experience the total creative output of this unique being.